Beware of the stereotype threat

Teaching tips focussing on stereotypical behavior are harming, not helping.

I was recently sent a link to an article on my university’s web pages, where a senior professor gives teaching tips from personal experience. While I really appreciate the effort and many of the tips were sensible enough (like for example showing respect to students, or admitting if one doesn’t know the answer to questions), there was one tip that I find questionable, to say the least.

This tip that I don’t agree with focusses on how one specific group of students is “prone to” delivering work products of a different quality than another student group, and that extra care should be taken to encourage the student group with the lesser work product. In his tip, the student groups are not distinguished from each other as “hard working vs not hard working”, “studious vs lazy”, “confident vs insecure” students or similar, but based on their gender.

I am sure the author meant no harm when writing this piece of advice. But propagating stereotypes in that way is not helpful. Look up “stereotype threat” on your website of choice if you wonder how a group is going to react if it is suggested to them that their work product is systematically inferior to that of another group, even if that suggestion is accompanied with an offer to help them do better. It is probably not going to motivate them the way the author thought it would. And in that vein – think about what stereotypical beliefs you might unconsciously harbor, and how they might influence your teaching. Even when you are using them with the best of intentions – for every stereotype boost you give an ingroup, there is an outgroup who will experience the negative effects of not being part of the ingroup. There is no way to use stereotypes in teaching such that all students will benefit from it. How about we subscribe to a teaching paradigm that encourages everybody to do their best, and support them in that endeavor to the best of our abilities?

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